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Water main break at Saint Mary’s disrupts campus

Anneliese Woolford | Friday, August 29, 2003

Just when Saint Mary’s faculty, staff and students thought nothing more extreme than Tuesday’s severe weather could disrupt the first week of classes, disaster struck the campus once again.

The pipe that carries water to three Saint Mary’s facilities burst Friday morning, leaving much of the campus without water and air conditioning. The cause of the water main break was a construction mishap at the location of the new student center.

“The demolition contractor demolishing the old dining hall hooked a 10-inch water main with his Caterpillar backhoe and tore a hole in it,” said John DeLee, director of facilities. “That’s one of the primary water mains on campus, so we had to shut that down, which shut off water to McCandless, Angela and the library. Because it was such a big leak, the whole campus had a pressure reduction.”

DeLee said the main, which he estimates to have contained over 150,000 gallons of water, flooded, but was contained in the excavation of the old dining hall.

Those on campus noticed the disruption almost immediately.

“I had just woken up and went to brush my teeth. Everything seemed fine,” said senior Jani Burns. “Then I went to the bathroom and it didn’t flush right the first time…dirt started coming up. I tried again and more dirt came up.”

The campus-wide pressure reduction caused toilets in many buildings to run continuously. Maintenance employees were forced to manually reset each one.

“Next thing the maintenance guy came to my door and did something to the toilet,” Burns said. “He seemed kind of frantic which made me more nervous. I think he said something about having to turn things back on one at a time, so it would take awhile.”

Another effect of the water main break was the shutdown of several campus database systems. The disconnected databases did not directly affect students and faculty.

“Our air conditioner is a water-based system, so when the water went off, our air conditioning and cooling stopped working,” said Keith Fowlkes, director of Information Technology. “In order to keep our systems from overheating and getting damaged, we brought down some of our central database systems and left core switches for campus networks and our electronic mail server.”

The Office of Information Technology sent an e-mail message to students, faculty and staff alerting them of the situation.

“It was such a fast and furious process; we didn’t have a lot of lead-time,” Fowlkes said. “We were afraid the air conditioning system would fail and we don’t have a backup, so we brought selected systems down to avoid damage to them.”

Fowlkes plans to discuss with maintenance the possibility of a back-up air conditioning system should an incident similar to Friday’s occur again.

Access to the Internet, shared diamond network and telecommunications was maintained, and all technology systems were restored at 1:15 p.m. Campus water and air conditioning was restored at 4 p.m.

“The contractors knew where the line was; it was on their prints,” DeLee said. “They just didn’t accurately estimate its location. All we can do is caution them not to get to close to the lines and we have to depend on them to do their work properly.”

DeLee said he will keep his fingers crossed in hopes of preventing a similar occurrence in the future.

“They [contractors] still have some work to do very near that line, so we’re not out of the woods yet.”